Notes On the Road: Accents, Longing, Belonging

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“Really?  You don’t have an accent.”

That is probably the number one response I get from people when they find out I’m from Boston.  I don’t have an accent.  It can come out if I’m really tired (er — tye-yihd) and there are a few words I had to teach myself to say properly (what’s up, phah-mih-cee), but, for the most part, I’m sans accent.  Didn’t matter that my father had one of the thickest working-class-Medford accents out there — or that my family tree is dripping with variations of the accent — no one hears me talk and suspects I’m from Boston.

But people have expected southern California.  Multiple times.

“My mom did grow up in Palo Alto,” I’d say, ignoring the part where Palo Alto is unambiguously not a part of SoCal.

Prologue 1: New Hampshire

I’m at an event about a year or so ago.  A lady is giving free card readings and I spend a solid chunk of the afternoon eyeing her table until there’s an empty seat.  I’ve loved getting my cards read since college, and I’ll admit that I can lean on them a little too much when the world gets a bit heavy.

It takes a while, but eventually her chair is free and I sit down.  I forget exactly when she said it — for dramatic effect, let’s say it was as soon as I sat down — but she looks at me and says point blank, “You’re not supposed to be in New Hampshire.”

“It’s not that New Hampshire is a bad place, or that it would be bad for you to live here,” she goes on. “But you’re not supposed to be here.”

About half a year later — after a slew of synchronicitous events keeps bringing this particular lady’s name into my peripheral — I end up going to her for a full reading.  She doesn’t remember anything that we talked about previously and apologizes for not even recognizing me in the first place.

It’s not immediate, but shortly after she starts laying out the cards, she looks at me and goes, “Now…if you could live anywhere, anywhere in the world, where would it be?  I just keep getting the feeling that you might be meant for someplace other than New Hampshire…”

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Prologue 2: Accents

“Your Memphis accent is terrible,” says my husband.  Memphis is our second stop on this tour of America, driving from New Hampshire to the Grand Canyon in big, circuitous loops. “Ya werds needta be a liddle softah. Hear thad drawwwl and thad slight slur a’da werds?”

My husband spent his early childhood in Memphis — but never gained an accent.  The locals used to call him the Little Yankee Boy, but he slips into a Memphis accent like an old leather coat.

I love doing voices and accents, but it can be extremely hit or miss.  My accents become nomadic and travel from one dialect to another.  And the subtleties of the different southern accents are apparently lost on my northeastern ears.

“I’d be the worst southern lady ever,” I say in an accent that is apparently Virginian meets Georgian.

Act 1: North Carolina/Smokey Mountains

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On the Appalachian Trail, I am relentlessly referencing Cheryl Strayed.

“I’d probably be just as woefully unprepared as her,” I tell my husband, referencing not only Cheryl Strayed but her memoir Wild — particularly, her lack of experience with long-term hiking, her overpacked backpack, the fact that she was only reading the guidebook in real time as she went along. “Only I wouldn’t end up with a fancy book deal and movie rights.  I’d just be dead.”

We’re following the tiniest of tiny portions of the AT — from one checkpoint to another and then back.  You can spot the day hikers from those who are actually hiking the entire length (or at least a good portion of it) by their dress, the size of their packs, and just the overall look.  Only one set of people look like they recently showered with hotel soap.

Cheryl Strayed didn’t hike the AT, but the PCT — Pacific Crest Trail.  Aside from that and a few other details, I found a frightening level of resonance with her memoir.  Not just with how her life started to unravel, but with her personality, with the way she worded things.  The way she viewed and described the world.  I joke she’s my spirit animal, but it’s a half joke at best.  Learning she had the same birthday as me (just ten or so years apart) only sealed that deal.  The little synchronicities my New Age mind sticks to.

I think about Cheryl Strayed’s hike.  I think about the lady who recently died on the AT — an experienced hiker who did the one thing I’m petrified of (going off the trail for the restroom and being unable to find the trail again).  I think about how disappearing into the woods for a few months won’t magically get your shit together — much like going to Italy, then India, then Bali won’t mend a broken heart a la Eat, Pray, Love.

But still, there’s a part of me that hears the call of the AT.  It tempts me with compromise: start at the halfway point.  You don’t have to be on the trail for months at a time.  You could do it piecemeal.  

You could do it.  

You belong on the trail.

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Act 2: Memphis

We are walking along the Mississippi when we’re caught in a downpour.

The weather has been exactly what I expected Memphis weather to be: soupy.  We see the encroaching clouds and decide to walk anyway.  My bag is waterproof enough.  I don’t really wear makeup.  My hair had already admitted defeat in a tightly braided ponytail.  And there are few things as refreshing as a pelting rainstorm after a hot, bright day.

The storm is intense, loud, and over within a half hour.  We’re outside for the entirety of it, soaked to the bone by the time the thunder and lightening subside.

You don’t get weather like this in the northeast.  Intense and quick.  Thunderstorms that you could set your baking time against.  The northeast is better known for its middling weather.  Mist and drizzle instead of storms.  Days that aren’t really one or the other season.  Far too much middle ground.

Mike Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” has been playing on relentless repeat since we left the Smokey Mountains, and in the 48 hours we’re there, I end up living out every line, right down to being in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of the pouring rain and walking down Beale like my feet weren’t touching the ground.

Walking in Memphis.  I was walking with my feet 10 feet straight off of Beale.  Walking in Memphis, but do I really feel the way I feel?

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Beale St is alive with its live music and lights and sounds and attractions.  It is also alive with zombies that night.  We pause to pet one zombified puppy and soon learn about the puppy’s past, the owner’s other dog, the owner’s mother’s dog, and the owner’s recent move to her  own apartment.  The kind of effortless life-sharing you find in the South.  You don’t really get interactions like this in the North.

You could get used to the heat. That voice from the back of my mind returns. Live by the Mississippi.  Eat fried catfish.  Despite your decidedly northern mindset, this could work.

Maybe you belong in the South.

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Interlude: Abby Interactions

My husband calls them “Abby Interactions”.  These five-minute snippets with complete strangers.  A little passing of information.  Perhaps a little life history.  Then we part ways.

We don’t really small-talk.  We don’t try to force the conversation.  Usually we’re both two travelers or tourists.  Or maybe a local and an out-of-towner.  It lasts exactly long as it’s supposed to last.  We talk about life, not pleasantries.  And then we wish each other well as we go on our ways.  A social introvert’s dream.

It’s a staple of the travel world.  Bunch of nomads, sharing the experience of this tourist spot — or just a shared understanding of being away from our usual contexts.  Freed of the shackles of having to mind our own business and keep things to ourselves.

People ask me how I could be so “brave” to write about what I write about — to bare my own soul about my upbringing and addiction and assault and mental health — and I never fully get it.  To me, it’s the small talk that produces anxiety.  It takes bravery and work to talk about the weather and adhere to the social script.  Our conversations that essentially reinforce this idea that the veneer must stay on for the sake of society.  That we’re worth a brief surface level chat while the rest of our human condition stews in the shadows.

To me, being genuine and in the moment — sharing and baring our souls when the moment calls for it — is the most natural thing our spirits can do.

Act 3: New Orleans

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Bourbon St is an interesting place when you don’t particularly drink, yourself.  It becomes a fascinating character study.  A chance to check out how people behave — the same way you would check out the French Quarter or the Garden District’s architecture.

The Perennial Observer can make a home anywhere. That voice pipes in. You don’t need to worry about fitting in.  Wherever you go, there’s always room on the sidelines.

Before nightfall, there is music on every corner.  In every bar.  On our last night there, we watch from our spot on a balcony as a 9-piece brass band sets up at a corner, adjacent to a closed-down restaurant.  Their music is joyous and loud and continuous.  They quickly attract a crowd and an intersection in Marigny becomes an impromptu concert venue.  People are dancing in the street, pausing only when cars attempt to go through.  The crowd erupts with applause every time the band pauses, even for a second.

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Forget the perennial observer crap.  Where there is music, I am home.

Interlude: The Doctor Will See You

“It’s a great field to be in,” says our dinner guest in New Orleans, who is finishing up a simultaneous MD and PhD. “And we need more people in the medical world who understand that mind-body connection.”

I keep saying that I just like playing with the idea of being a physical therapist.  That it’s something I shelter under when I feel like being a yoga instructor/writer is too hippy and bohemian — “Maybe I’ll go back to school.  Become a physical therapist.”  Something I take cover under when I feel like I need justification for the changes of heart I’ve made as of late about my future.  Really, just play.  No big deal.

No big deal, but I Google what it takes to be a physical therapist.  No big deal, but sometimes I search job sites for physical therapy jobs — just to see what is out there.  No big deal, but I read anatomy books in my spare time.  No big deal, but I treat my yoga classes like amateur physical therapy sessions.  No big deal, but I know the only program in New Hampshire is an associate’s degree to become a physical therapy assistant.  No big deal, but I constantly scrutinize yoga classes — both mine and others — to find pose variations and transitions that could potentially be harmful.  No big deal, but I know the closest doctoral program is in Maine and that BU has one of the best programs around and that my alma mater has one too.

No big deal — and, after a decade, my husband is quite attuned to my nuance, to this quirk: that the more I downplay something, the more I must want it.  And if it involves time and money and investment, the downplaying only intensifies.

Like, how dare I want something big.  Something you’d have to go all in for.  Don’t mind the girl on the sidelines, with her obviously irrational and probably just impulsive wants & needs.  Carry on with your day.

“It’s not the right time, anyway,” I say. “For one, I’d have to move.”  For another, I’m starting up my advanced yoga teacher training in September — one to be a comprehensive yoga therapist, fittingly enough.

And going to get my doctorate is more than just an investment.  It means three years of putting everything else on pause.  It means putting yoga teaching on pause.  It means putting freelance writing on pause.  It means hitting the breaks on my newest manuscript and my feeble attempts to polish up my third one.

It means essentially saying, “I know for a fact that I should be doing this and only this for a good length of time.” And I’m certainly no where near where I need to be in order to say anything remotely like that.

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Act 4: Austin

“Keep Austin Weird, eh?” I recite.  I’d heard the slogan a time or two before, but never really gave much thought about it until now.

“Yup.  Austin is filled with weirdos.”

“My type of people, then.”

Austin is called the Live Music Capital of America, and it’s living up to its name.  The first place on 6th St we check out has a band comprised of a harpist, a cello, and drums.  The lady covers Florence & the Machines, strumming her harp while warning me:

Leave all your love and your longing behind.  You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive.

Her fingers are sharp and fast. She plays her harp like an electric guitar. She exudes fun and confident energy.

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Much like Bourbon St, 6th Street is fascinating when your idea of a night out drinking is a pint of cider with your dinner.

At one venue, I watch a group of women spend more time posing for pictures as if they are having the time of their lives than actually dancing or having fun or listening to the band or even drinking their drinks.  A woman in the upstairs area walks over to an oversized Jenga game.  She doesn’t play it, but poses with it as if she was playing.  She holds it for exactly long as it takes for her friend to take the picture.

At another venue, I watch a bachelor party group dance and play beer pong to a musician doing funky covers on his ukulele and beat machine.  One of the bachelor party guys tries far too hard to pick up one girl and fails gloriously.  I watch him hover around the night’s pair ups — including the girl he wanted, who has decided on a different member of the party — like a pack animal positioning for dominance, but losing terribly.

The perennial observer can make a home anywhere.  Just strolling down 6th St and watching the way people walk and interact and hold their bodies is amazing.  The people who strut with confidence and the people who want to make themselves as small as possible.  Off of one sidewalk, a musician is passed out drunk with 8 police officers surrounding them.

When I get back to the hotel, I Google, “Doctor in Physical Therapy Programs, Austin TX.”

Interlude: Halcyon

“Halcyon” is a word that always eludes me.  For some reason, the definition never sticks.

“What’s halcyon mean?” I say in the midst of watching a Texan sunset — a complete non sequitur to anyone who wasn’t in my head and following my train of thought.  My husband can’t remember either and pulls out his phone.

For some reason, I’ve decided halcyon means hazy, fevered, tumultuous — perhaps due to the fact the word look likes a combination of “haze” and “cyclone”.  I imagine halcyon days — usually the only time I see the word; in books describing days as halcyon days — as these delirious, whirlwind, shifting days, particularly during the summer.  Days that blur with the heat and the passion and the unraveling events.

Halcyon: origins in Greek Mythology, meaning a period of calm — particularly during the winter.

Act 5: New Mexico

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The woman at the reservation is trying to tell me about all the people who have bought her necklaces and were cured of their ailments.  I don’t need the snake oil salesman tactics.  I just think they’re pretty.

If anything, I’m about the symbolism.  Bear for courage.  Feather for guidance.  The fancy stones’ potential powers is a cute detail, at best.

There’s a gigantic mesa as we drive in to the reservation.  My husband feels a calling towards it.  I feel it, too.  We find out from a security guard that we can go near it, so long as we stay close to the road and don’t climb the rocks.  We opt to go there instead of the tour of the pueblo.

We both go for some type of meditation.  We effortlessly fork from the car, my husband going one way, me the other.  I walk a little way’s away from the car and stand in front of the mesa, careening up just to catch the edge of this gigantic rock formation.

After a few breaths, I let my arms swing back and my head tilt back.  What exactly I’m doing, I can’t say.  You could say I am in communion with whatever that mesa represented.  The spirits.  Life energy.  The mesa itself.  God.  My own psychosis.  Regardless, something is happening.  Whatever that something is, however, it’s nonverbal.  Nothing tangible is communicated, other than my surrender.

There is no better word.  Surrender.  But not in the way of admitting defeat.  There are no white flags waving.  I’m simply handing over power.  I’ve exhausted myself over the last two years — especially over the last year and a half — constantly claiming that I’ve let time sort out what I cannot, only to try to grab the reigns back at the 11th hour.  Right now, I’m officially stepping down from commander in chief.  In the face of something as majestic as the mesa, I — at least temporarily — feel okay letting go of those reigns.

A few days later, when I’d look back on it, I’d end up quoting the last line of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir to myself:

How wild it was, to let it be.

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Act 6: Grand Canyon

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Right before she yells at us for being too social with a squirrel, we find out the ranger at the rest station on the Bright Angel trail is on a bit of a tour.  She’s slowly going across the country, working at a state park for a few weeks — hiking the trails and checking in on hikers and answering questions — before going to a new one.  Slowly but surely, she’s heading more and more out west.

“That seems like your type of job,” my husband remarks.

And it is. There’s something so intriguing and tempting about spending the year hiking the trails, before going off to a new park, a new state.  It lines up with a small pipe dream I have — one where I establish myself enough as a writer that I can start doing yoga/writing hybrid workshops and have enough clout that studios across the country would want to take me in for a weekend.  Tour the country.  Go from studio to studio (or park to park).  Nomadic as my attempts at impersonating accents.

Yes, this is very much my type of job.

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I’m fairly accustomed to what it takes to take care of yourself on the trails.  I’m also fairly accustomed to what altitude sickness looks like on me.  On the first day of the trails, I recognize that my slight nausea is probably due to changes in altitude, despite being in high altitude states for the last couple of days.  However, because of the nausea, I’m eating the bare minimum on our rest breaks.  A very low amount, even for a regular day.  A dangerously low amount, given that we spend all day hiking — burning nearly 3000 calories, according to my fitness tracker.

By sunset, I’m feeling like I’m literally 10 feet off the ground.  Surreal, to the say the least.  I continue to assume altitude sickness.  As the sun sets and the air gets cold, I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I can stay on my feet.  I attempt to walk away from the railing at Mather’s Point, I realize that I greatly overestimated how much longer I could stand.  Two steps in and I’m finding the closest rock to sit.  Within minutes, I’m lying down on the rocks.

“Is she all right?” a lady passing by asks.

“Oh, fine, fine, I’m good,” I say, attempting to sit up.

“Your health is more important than random strangers thinking you’re okay,” my husband warns.

I lay there for a bit, attempting to look more like a napping hiker than someone who feels like her head is filling up with electric cotton.  When the spinning subsides, I attempt to get up again.  Five steps in and the corners of my vision go gray.  I find the closest railing, grip it, and slump against the side’s wall.

Whatever had been altitude sickness had long ago been replaced with a severe drop in blood sugar, and I had been ignoring it for far too long.  I slowly and painstakingly eat a few semi-melted sugar cookies.  After a few minutes, everything subsides and I feel confident that I can walk without passing out.  I continue snacking as we drive out of the Grand Canyon, stopping at a local restaurant.

As a steak dinner is placed in front of me, my husband points his utensils in my direction and says,

This, is why you don’t travel alone.”

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Act 7: Homeward Bound 

 

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Route 40W brings us to the most Western point we’ll go at the Grand Canyon before looping back around home.  Before logging in two 14-hour drives, briefly stopping in Ohio to say hi to family, and driving another 12 hours until we’re home again.

Route 40W also brings us to Los Angeles.

You could keep driving, that little voice returns. Keep driving.  Hit the Pacific Ocean again.  Then keep driving some more.

One of my friends joked that my road trip is making her want to quit her job and just drive.  I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been trying to crunch the numbers in my head.  If I bought a small Winnebago in full, what would my day-to-day living expenses would be.  Perhaps the Winnebago could have solar panels.  How much food, gas, etc, would I need.  

And suddenly I’m in full-blown bohemian mode, imagining a nomadic life, never staying in one spot for too long, getting my fill of Abby Interactions, the best of both worlds.  If only I just keep going West.  A direct rebellion against the life I thought for far too long I was supposed to be living.

We loop around the Mojave desert, passing by endless Joshua trees reaching for the sky.  We’re 60 miles out from the Nevada border, from Las Vegas.  Four hours to LA.  After hitting Grand Canyon West, overpaying to walk out onto glass panels and scare ourselves to the bone, we turn back around.  New Hampshire or bust.

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When it’s my turn to be behind the wheel, driving east through New Mexico and the tophat of Texas — along Rt 66 and towards an infinite windmill farm like Don Quixote towards his giants — the Eagles come on the radio, reminding me, “Take it easy.  Take it easy.  Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.

New Hampshire or bust.  And I have a damn good life waiting for me back in New Hampshire.  A life that, in some ways, is already a direct rebellion against the life I thought I was supposed to live.  The fact that I’m so tempted to drop it and run is outright laughable.

Immediately after the Eagles, Del Amitri comes on, asking me point blank, “Look into your heart, pretty baby.  Is it aching with some aimless need?  Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it?

I sigh at the juxtaposition of the two songs and continue my trek east.

You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive.

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Act 8: Galapagos

Eventually we make it back to East Coast time.  Kay Hanley’s song “Galapagos” pops into my head as I set my car’s clock back.

My watch is set now to Eastern Standard…

It doesn’t take long before my mind tries to finish the song, landed on a few lines down from the previous, one that seems to fit pretty well also.

Will I be safe?  I’m going home.  Should I be scared that I don’t know?

Kay Hanley’s “Galapagos” has become one of those songs that I unapologetically listen to, every line hitting a little too close too home.  One of those songs you put on when you’re ready to feel too many feelings and potentially cry during your commute.

It makes me tired how I make you tired.  It seems most all the time.

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Where there is music, I am home.  Not just physically.  Where there is music, I am home within myself.  Home inside my skin and my heart and my mind.  Where there is music to navigate through, I am home with my thoughts and feelings and memories.

As a species, we sang before we talked, as I’m keen on pointing out.  Music touches in a way a speech never could.  We all succumb to doling out music lyrics like they’re penicillin to what infects us.

There’s no excuse at 29 to be so absurdly like a child.

And perhaps it touches us because to sing is to drop guard. To bare soul. And to listen is to take one person’s naked soul as a litmus test against your own — and to shine light into every crack and crevasse of the human condition.  And what a moment it is, when that mirror reflects back what we desperately need to have reflected back.

Epilogue 1: Sleep and Anchoring

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Me and sleep have a toxic relationship.

One of those nasty, unresolved, codependent dynamics that, when it’s good, it’s so good that I forget how bad it can be.  But when it’s bad, I wonder exactly how much more I can take of it.

The issues come in all shapes and sizes.  Sometimes it comes in the form of standard insomnia – laying in bed and wondering why I can’t flip the switch and slip into unconsciousness. Sometimes it comes in the form of waking up the second there’s any dip in my circadian rhythm.  But the most common is sleepwalking and talking.

For days after we leave the Grand Canyon, I dream that I’m back on the trails. I sit up in bed, scanning the room, convinced I’m scanning the cliffsides.  The first night, I even get up and traipse the hotel room like I’m going around a bend in the trail.  A couple nights in, I start talking about the trails as well.  Noting the sun coming through the cracks (it was actually a cell phone screen reflecting off furniture).  Remarking on how close our bed is to the edge.  Being upset that it’s dark and we forgot our headlamps.

“It’s a sign I have unfinished business there,” I decide. “I’m supposed to go back and follow those trails all the way to the valley.”

The last night before we’re back in New Hampshire, I still continue to dream I’m on the cliffsides.  The only difference is, now, there’s a part of my unconscious brain that is trying to convince the other part that I’m actually in a bedroom.

Listen to the ceiling fan.  There are no ceiling fans in the Grand Canyon.

An absurd statement to anyone who isn’t straddling the line between reality and dreamworld.

But I listen.  I keep semi-waking up, keep being convinced I’m back on the trails and right by the edge and why am I on the trails when it’s so dark.  And then I listen to the ceiling fan.  The whirr of the blades.  The slight clink of the pull chain against the ceramic lamp.  Like I’m in Inception and this is my totem.  My anchor.  My ability to remind myself that this isn’t real and to slowly bring myself back to reality.

Listen to the ceiling fan and the anchoring clink.  Do what you need to get back to reality.  You have no place straddling the line like this.

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Epilogue 2: How Do I Know

We’re in between cities in New Mexico, large expanses of nothingness in front of us.  We’re deep in conversation — the effortless flow that has always been a hallmark and benchmark of our relationship. Our easy talks.  Even when the subjects are heavy, we carry them onwards like leaves down a river.  And today’s subject certainly is heavy.

“Let me guess what your feelings are,” says my husband, ready to predict where my mind is at regarding the future.  With a few simple sentences, he dissects my brain into quadrants, each square’s hope & fear directly contradicting the others.

“How did I do?” he asks after he’s done.

“It’s accurate,” I say.  Frighteningly accurate.  So frighteningly accurate that I’m half tempted to lie or deny or downplay.

“How do you think I knew that?” he asks as a follow-up.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Because you know me?”

“Nope.  Guess again.”

“Because you have exceptional insight into what makes people tick?” I say.

“Nope.”

“Because a lot of women feel this way?” I say.

“Nope.”

“Well, then, I don’t know,” I say, giving up. “How do you know?”

“Because that’s exactly how I feel too,” he admits.

And in that moment, I feel a surging and profound sense of connection and belonging.  One that frightens me more than his assessment of everything.  It is a moment I start clinging to.  A moment that brings me to one of the first scenes in Mrs. Doubtfire, right after the Robin Williams’s character and his wife fight.

“We’ll go on vacation.”
“All our problems will be waiting for us when we get back.”
“Then we’ll move.”

There is elation and hope and a sinking feeling and now — more than ever, more than the hikes and the sites and the sounds and the bohemian lifestyle and the interactions and the nomadic spirit — I want to stay on this road.  Follow it from city to city.  Never returning to whatever it is I’m supposed to be returning to.  Chasing the towns like I’m chasing this feeling.  Onwards and onwards and onwards.

Now make this bad ride fly Galapagos.

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